"The Shield of Achilles"
Author: W. H. Auden
From: The Facts On File Companion to American Poetry, vol. 2.
W. H. Auden's meditation on the brutal, warlike nature of the modern world, "The Shield of Achilles" is based on Homer's account in the Iliad of the Greek god Hephaestos's construction for Achilles of a suit of armor whose rich design and decorations retell the history of the world. Written in alternating seven-line stanzas ofrime royal (rhymed ABABBCC) and eight-line stanzas recalling the ballad stanza (ABCBDEFE), the poem operates on a series of contrasts. The main character, Thetis, watches Hephaestos's labors, and Auden creates an ironic conflict between her expectations of beautiful scenes and the images Hephaestos renders instead, of imperial Rome and of the modern world's industry and impersonality. This discrepancy shows the distance between the myth of history and its brutal reality; moreover, Auden suggests, the notion of progress itself is a myth, since the brutal past is scarcely distinguishable from the brutal present. The poem thus exemplifies Auden's vision of poetry as a powerful way to "disenchant and disintoxicate" the reader (Dyer's, 27), freeing one from the myths and fictions of history that, for all their beauty, often serve to compound or conceal human misery.
In book XVIII of the Iliad, Homer writes of how the goddess Thetis, mother of Achilles, the greatest of Greek warriors, petitioned the god Hephaestos to forge him a new suit of armor to replace the one stripped by the Trojan leader Hector from the body of Achilles's slain friend, Patroclus. In describing the ornate design that Hephaestos works into the armor, Homer relates a world history that encompasses all the ages of man, and by connecting art, history, and war, Homer makes epic poetry a means of exploring the richness of human culture through a narrative of war. In this lyric poem, Auden alludes to the Homeric narrative through Thetis's initial expectation...